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greenbelt

My walk home from school was more pleasant than my walk to it. The meadows were darker on the way there, more restless and brooding, but brighter, greener, fresher on the way back. Thus the land reflects emotion, amplifies it, responds to imagination. To know the land for long enough is to have it become a part of who we are, mirror to our mood. To know buildings is not the same. It is only in the land the spirit of place can dwell, and when the land is gone, covered over with the built environment, the spirit dies.

There was a little brook by the roadside where we used to stop on the way home from school. I remember it as a dappled oasis, a stream full of little stars and reward aplenty for the indignities suffered during the school day. I remember too the faces of my pals, hear the echo of their voices, feel the mood of joyous play.

The brook has gone now. It was a nuisance to grown-ups, and is diverted through a culvert, buried beneath the entrance to a housing estate, as indeed every meadow along that mile long route to school is similarly built upon, the spirit of place expunged by “development”.

In similar vein my childhood bedroom looked out over the green of the Yarrow Valley, a place of quiet contemplation and leafy walks, to which I am still regularly drawn. To lose oneself in the quiet of a moving meditation is to envision the land with a magic others cannot see or feel. The romanticism of past ages touched me there, rendered me sensitive to dimensions beyond sight and ordinary knowing, and it’s to that place I owe my writing. But like my little stream of stars, there are rumours it too will soon be gone. Others say the rumours are false, but I’m unsettled by them all the same, grown cynical and lacking trust in my old age. Housing has encroached so much in past decades, it seems a natural progression for them to take what little remains here. 

I remember coming up from the river once, crossing a particularly lovely stretch of meadow. I was brooding on a girl I knew – or rather a girl I wanted very much to know. It was a glowering dusk, and against the skyline there was a huge, wind-blasted tree, sculpted by centuries of leaning against the prevailing wind, and there was the gentle curve of a hill, very feminine in outline, and a hint of thunder in a hot wind that rendered the leaves restless – all of this a perfect mirror for my mood. The meadow too was dewy, my footsteps forming a lone trail, lightly drawn as if upon a silvery veil, reflecting the fragility of the moment. It was such a long time ago, but whenever I return I am reminded of that night, the way my imagination connected, and how the land spoke.

Today that same perfect curve of skyline is broken by the jackknifed outline of houses, and there are these possibly pernicious rumours that speak of ripping up the meadow, as the houses move yet further south into this still glorious belt of green. I have watched the inexorable march year on year with a mixture of profound regret and puzzlement. Can it really be that, like my childhood stream of stars, it will be gone? And why do so few of us value it so much, when others value it so little they can blithely trade it on the market and dig it up.

Developers talk of greenbelt as if its preservation is an encumbrance, a distraction from the target to build and monetise an otherwise unproductive resource. But uninterrupted green is important too, its value intangible of course, at least in terms of pounds and pence, and if all we have left is a quarter mile belt around our towns, sufficient only as a place we take our dogs to defecate, we have already lost too much.

Of course there can be no permanence in the material world. All things must change; we all grow old and die, and sometimes the storms will come and fell the mighty oak, known and loved by generations. Likewise our footsteps, traced across the dewy meadow, will be gone by morning, lost to a new dawn. But let them be dissolved by sunlight, taken back into the eternal memory that is the spirit of the land, not obliterated by the ignominy of several thousand tons of brick and concrete.

 

 

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surface-hands-ellerbeck-abt-1913

Surface Hands, Ellerbeck Colliery, Coppull, 1913

The valley of the River Yarrow has suffered much under the march of modernity. Greenbelt erosion from the north has extended Chorley’s suburbs over meadows I’d once thought sacrosanct. Even the historic and achingly romantic Burgh Hall was flattened to make way for a housing estate. It was there, legend has it, Livingstone spent his last night in England before embarking for Africa, or was it Stanley who went after him? I forget now, but this alone is surely interesting enough a fact to give pause, while in another, entirely irrelevant. I presume the developers took the latter view before sending in the wrecking ball.

All I know is I miss the hall when I walk along Burgh Lane at twilight – often a lone lamp in the window flickering out a morse code of myth across the misty green, now extinguished by the alien orange brick of modern housing. I suppose those massed ranks will weather in eventually and take on a more authentic ownership of the land, but for now the betrayal of my memories by their harsh present day reality is too much to bear. I am left wondering if perhaps I dreamed the past as a prettier place, and it troubles me, the thought the world might always have been this ugly.

Meanwhile to the south, across the Yarrow, at Coppull, there are rumours of plans  for several hundred new homes, this on the 108 hectare site of the present Yew Tree Farm dairy – indeed an entire village addendum, including a school and health centre, overlaid like toy-town across a particularly picturesque run of pristine, sylvan glade. I find the planner’s pastel shaded impressions disturbing in their simplicity, conveying much in terms of bold change, yet nothing of the quiet treasure of green that is to be consumed in the process.

The location also surprises me, sitting as it does atop extensive disused Victorian mine-workings, and in particular the deep shaft of the Coppull Colliery. Unlike the stories of Burgh Hall, disused workings are not so easily dismissed as myth, since a void in the earth has a somewhat uncompromising quality about it. I would certainly be afraid to live there, no matter what assurances I was given. As children there were two risks we ran when exploring that side of the Yarrow – one being the boot of the farmer, the other falling through into old workings. And insurers have always taken a dim view of properties prone to subsidence.

The shafts and tunnels of the Coppull Colliery link up with workings of the similarly vanished colliery at Coppull Hall, just a little to the south of Yew Tree Farm. Coppull Hall Colliery is quite another story, being the site of an appalling disaster in 1852. Here the ground shook and the shaft spat out a column of soot and slack, result of an explosion of firedamp. 36 men and boys were lost, many burned, others suffocated by chokedamp. 90 were pulled out injured.

It was not an unusual occurrence in Victorian coalfields, nor was it anywhere near the largest of our losses to King Coal, at least in Lancashire, that particular grim accolade going to the Pretoria Pit near Westhoughton for its 1910 explosion that claimed 344 lives. But the Coppull Hall disaster was sufficient to have rendered the echo loud, at least in local memory, and especially for later generations of pit-men and their descendants. The combined shafts of the Coppull Collieries are now but dimples in the meadows that hug the river. Unfenced, void of warning, they are ominous only to those with local knowledge. The mine-buildings are gone, demolished, buried under the council refuse tipping that went on here until the 70’s, and now all nicely grassed over.

There is a quietness to this stretch of the Yarrow, and a sweet melancholy in the sound of the river. It’s hard to imagine such horror taking place underground when the environs above are so lovely. The shaft of the Coppull Hall Colliery is over six hundred feet deep, and miles of tunnel fanning out dendritically among the seams, joining with other tunnels from more ancient mines dotted all along the vale. And wandering their traces I imagine the ghosts of lost men and little boys.

One such man was John Turner. He and a friend were escaping towards the shaft that morning, when Turner went back into the mine. Men often worked underground in their smalls because of the heat, and Turner had gone back to where he’d left his clothes, perhaps his dignity demanding he did so irrespective of the risk. He was later found, head pillowed on his neatly folded garments, his clogs beside him, removed as if for bed, sleeping the eternal sleep.

I am struck too by the boys, as young as seven, the so called “pit-lads”, who died that day, and I’m reminded that in a culture of unbridled avarice, the poor man, no matter how brave of heart, is lower even than cattle to the man who owns him.

In the churchyard at Coppull Parish, there is a memorial to the mine manager’s son, John Ellis, a young man of 24, killed in the blast. It’s an unfussy flagstone slab, barely legible now, but with patience one can make out mention of the disaster, as if staring back through the mist of time. It is the only memorial to what took place. Ironic, how I once sang “All Things Bright and Beautiful” in that church, innocent as all the lambs who died. Older eyes tell me now there is but a thin gloss to the world, that while it’s stories aspire to godliness and beauty, we do well to remember it is mostly a vile scramble for loot in a world built upon the broken backs of working men, and their children.

There are no deep mines in Lancashire any more, indeed none in England. Even in modern times they were terrible places to work, and I might be glad they’ve gone except we have only exported the danger and the tragedy to the poor of other countries. Wherever in the world men still dig coal, their stories are the same as those of the Lancashire coalfield and of the Yarrow Valley. In this we find grim fellowship as, in a smaller way, there is fellowship among those who have seen their once precious green sacrificed to the god of progress and little orange houses.

If the development of Yew Tree Farm goes ahead, if my fond memories of place are to be once more betrayed by the harsher reality, I hope at least the story of Coppull Hall Colliery will be remembered, that they will teach it in the new school, that the residents of those new homes will pause in the mowing of their lawns, and the washing of their cars, that they will spare a thought for the likes of John Turner, dreaming the dream of eternal sleep, deep beneath their feet, just one of many thousands of forgotten souls, brave men and boys, all lost in the earth.

References:

Lancashire Mining Disasters 1835-1910 – Jack Nadin

The Chorley Standard, May 22nd 1852.

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